Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reader's Diary #148- Matt Cohen: Elizabeth and After (up to page 40)

Call it blogger's doldrums. Call it reader's doldrums. Call it whatever, but for the first time since beginning this blog, I'm finding myself at a loss for words.

Sure I can come up with a few starters:
1. I'm enjoying the down to earth characters and setting
2. I'm enjoying Cohen's descriptive abilities: he has a tendency to list as many details as possible (not as tedious as it sounds), and his similes tend to be realistic ones the characters might actually think of (not army sergeants comparing things to ballet dances).
3. Cohen always seems to have the title in mind, especially the "and After" part. There's a lot of retrospection going on, yet he hasn't bogged the story down with flashbacks.

But that's about it. So, I'm going to take the lazy route out tonight. Here are some others that have blogged about Elizabeth and After:

50 Books- Vancouver blogger, Doppelganger focuses on the likeability of Cohen's characters.

My Own Private Bookclub- Niagara on the Lake blogger, Maribel summarizes the story and while she seems to have enjoyed it, questions its Governor General award.

Strung Along- I'm not sure who runs this blog. Basically, it's just a few generic words of praise. Says that Cohen doesn't condescend.

Elizabeth and After- Yes, an entire blog devoted just to this book. Created by Sam Sibalis, it gives a chapter by chapter summary as well as Sibalis's opinions. It leaves me with the question, Are my meager conversations about this book even necessary? Oh well. That's not why I set out to blog in the first place.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Reader's Diary #147- Tom Lowenstein (translator): Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland (FINISHED)

If Othello brought me down, Eskimo Poems has brought me right back up again.

Towards the end I started thinking about how unlikely a book of Inuit poems from the early 1900s should be. They didn't even have paper for goodness sakes! And yet, it wasn't surprising. What aboriginal group doesn't have a repertoire of songs and poems and so forth that have been passed down through generations?

It's encouraging.

With all of the cutbacks in the arts, especially music education, people often panic. It'll be the death of the arts! We'll be living in a bland world of calculator wielding accountants!

Not true. If the Inuit could have a rich tradition of poetry without paper, if rap could arise from impoverished inner-city ghettos, if... you get the picture. As long as there are people, there'll be art.

I'm not for cutbacks. It would be nice if a kid in outport Newfoundland had the opportunity to pick up a trombone rather than an accordion, if they were so inclined. But Eskimo Poems has made me realize, things aren't as bleak as we often make them out to be.

(No accountants were harmed in the writing of this blogpost.)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #146- William Shakespeare: Othello (FINISHED)

Why is Shakespeare still so highly regarded? The most common answer is relevance. People go on and on about how his themes can still apply to today's society, and I would tend to agree.

But am I the only one who finds that depressing?

Look at all of his tragedies: deceit, jealousy, rage, conspiracy, pride, revenge and so on. These plays were written in the 1600s! Isn't it sad that humanity hasn't evolved past these pitfalls yet? Or at the very least, come up with some sort of pill?

The central story of Othello has the title character, otherwise good, torn apart by jealousy and mistrust. And from what? Iago's lies about his (Othello's) wife, Desdemona. And really, what would Dr. Phil say about all of this? He'd probably start with some inane Southern colloquialism, but end up saying something about the value of communication. But why does the world still need a Dr. Phil? Because in 400 years, we still haven't learned a dang thing about communicatin'.

(And for the love of everything Holy, don't answer the "Why does the world still need a Dr. Phil?" It was for comic effect only.)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Reader's Diary #145- Tom Lowenstein (translator): Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland (up to "Agdliartortoq and Migssuarnianga")

While not the strongest poems in the collection, there's an interesting section of poems entitled, "Songs of Derision". These are just as the title would suggest; put-downs. However, the compelling part comes from them being told by two people, a sort of call and answer approach. It sort of reminds me of the rap battles as were shown in 8 Mile. However, unlike the raps, these poems aren't met to be skill competitions. Instead, they are ways of airing grievances with one another. In one poem, two Inuit named Kilime and Eqerqo throw insults at each other, over a woman they both claim to love. From a sociological stand point they make a lot of sense. In such tightly woven communities, in which getting along was almost a matter of survival, getting issues out in the open was a great idea, especially when you realize that these songs were most often performed at community feasts, so the entire populace could help mend the relationships. From a poetic stand-point, they are weaker. Often they, like the rap battles, were on the spot songs. People had no idea what was going to be said about them and so they didn't have the time to choose the best words.

Recently there's been a lot of press about hip-hop being a salvation to Iqaluit's youth. There's a lot of kids into the music here, and looking at the "songs of derision" there are definite precedents. It would be interesting to see rap battles as songs of derision take off here. I think both would improve; the derision songs would have better rhyming and poetic qualities and the rap would serve more of a purpose than the "look I skilled I am" aim.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Reader's Diary #144- William Shakespeare: Othello (up to Act 5, Scene 1)

Some interpretations of Othello's villain, Iago see him as the devil himself. Certainly his seeming lack of a motive to create wrongdoing would indicate an evil presence. But is he supernatural or merely psychopathic? Despite Shakespeare's uncanny ability to have defined many of today's psychoses, long before they were actually labeled, I do think he was taking the more archaic view of evil. That is, I think he was trying to portray Iago's evil intentions as having a supernatural basis.

The way Iago manipulates Othello and others, often planting false ideas in their head, seems totally reminiscent of the proverbial "devil on your shoulder" often spoofed in cartoons. But more than that, Shakespeare seems to use a lot of demonic, or at the very least monstrous, imagery. When referring to the sex act, Iago calls it "the beast with two backs" (tee hee). He refers to envy as "the green-ey'd monster." When repenting his drunkenness, Cassio says (about wine), "Every inordinate cup is unblest, and the ingredient is a devil." There are many more such cases as well, but my favourite (because if you buy the "Iago as devil" theory, there's more than a touch of irony) comes from the opening scene when Iago says, "Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God, if the devil bid you."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Summer Reading: Reality or Myth?

Looking at the summer movies, it seems Hollywood is of the opinion that our brains shut down during the summer months. Is this true? And if so, has it always been the case or were we led to believe this is so? Likewise with reading. I, myself, am guilty of talking about "light summer reads." Yet, my reading choices really haven't altered much throughout the summer months. My habits yes, have changed a little. With more outside time (and more time taken up with my recent move), I've found that I've had less time to read. However, when I do get the chance, is there any reason why I should look for something fluffy?

What affect does the summer have on your reading?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Reader's Diary #143- Tom Lowenstein (Translator): Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland (up to "Heq")

When I go to read another's interpretation of another culture's art, I'm a little weary. Being from one of those cultures people tend to analyze, I've learned that too often outsiders are either culture blind (a new phrase I'm trying to coin) whereby everything we do is "simply marvelous!", or bigoted.

I had the same skepticism picking up Eskimo Poems. But, I was too intrigued by the collection to pass it up. I've voiced my concern before that I've been reading too much Eurocentric literature. And while most of Canadian literature fits into that category (the term "Eurocentric" has come to mean all Western culture in general), First Nations and Inuit literature doesn't seem to apply. All of our cultures may all be Americanized one day, but for now (and especially when these "Eskimo Poems" were written), there are enough obvious differences in our art. Watch Atanajuat, listen to Tanya Tagaq and tell me otherwise. It's unfortunate that many of the great poets of the past may have been Inuit but will likely never be recognized names like Keats, Frost, or Whitman. I think times are changing and new Inuit poets will probably have a better shot at success, but names like Aua will probably be forgotten except by a few openminded literati.

Knud Rasmussen, in his openmindedness, was a rarity of his time. These poems were originally collected by the Greendlandic born explorer in the early part of the 20th century. He translated the Inuktitut words into Danish, Lowenstein translated those into English. So being doubly translated there's some risk that something has been lost in translation- and perhaps even a risk that something has been added. However...

So far I'm enjoying the poems tremendously. In many ways they are different than most of the poetry that I've read. There's much more repetition- most were originally songs and to be remembered (there wasn't paper) had to have the repetition. Also, there's a lot of untranslatable syllables (ex. "jajai-ija") that end many of the stanzas. The repetition, the "jajai-ija"s (pronounced roughly as "yah-yie--eeya" -they still do this sort of singing today), and the themes revolving around nature all add to a near trance-inducing poetry experience.

That's not to say there are no similarities with non-Inuit poetry. The poems collected by Rasmussen are superbly crafted poems. There are some examples of figurative language,
"A little mouth,/that curves down at the corners/ like a stick, bent to form a
kayak's rib",
- from Netsit's "Men's Impotence"

"each time the sun/ climbs over the roof of the sky"

- from "Dead Man's Song"

and masterful imagery
"His head is swollen,/ his beak is hooked,/ and his round eyes/ have lids turned
inside out,/ red and heavy!"
-from Tatilgak's "Bird Song". Combined with the poet's unique way of interpreting mankind, these are great works of art.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reader's Diary #142- William Shakespeare: Othello (up to Act 3, Scene 1)

Before I began reading Othello, I expected my first posting would be somehow related to the board game, or the movie adaptation, O. Until now, those have been my only exposures to the play (and I enjoyed them both). But since, reading the first two acts I feel more compelled to write about Iago.

What I find most compelling about this villain is his pure and intelligent evil. What's pure about it (not an oxymoron), is the seeming absence of motivation! Unlike a lot of Shakespeare's plays in which evil intention is born out of greed, vengeance, jealousy and other typical roots, Iago's reasons are unclear. It makes him all the more intriguing. I find myself (nerdy as this is going to sound) waiting for his next soliloquy in hopes it might reveal some of what has provoked him. But when it doesn't come, instead of leaving me bitter, it draws me to him even more! There's just something so darn magnetic about an psychopath, isn't there? According to Wikipedia, I'm not the first to scour the play looking for some insight into his sinister character. But while many theories have been proposed, none seem to suffice. For though he does seem racist (if Iago was indeed black) and resentful over Othello's position, none of these or other theories seem sufficient. As motivators they are hardly dwelled upon at all (by Iago or any other character). It does, however, seem to have been an intent of Shakespeare to show how much Iago simply loved to manipulate people and stir up trouble. If Iago was manservant Hecubes, and I was Sir Simon Mulligan, I'd be pointing at him and saying, "Evil! Evil!" just about now.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Reader's Digest #141- Leonard Cohen: Book of Longing (FINISHED)

According to Wikipedia (man, I get a lot of mileage out of that site, don't I?), an epigram is "a short poem with a clever twist at the end or a concise and witty statement. They are among the best examples of the power of poetry to compress insight and wit."

Cohen has epigrams scattered throughout this collection. My wife and I were discussing how blunt and straightforward many of Cohen's poems are. Robert Frost poems are often highly praised for the debates they fuel. What was "Mending Wall" really about? People have analyzed the hell out of that one, haven't they? Cohen, on the other hand, throws his philosophy down on the table for everyone to see. Both approaches have their merit, but in the poetry world, Cohen's is a little more refreshing. Not to say forthrightness isn't common- teenagers have been notorious for this type of poem. But it is rare to be done well.

Cohen does it extremely well. "The Lovesick Monk" is a great example. It's the frustration of a man (himself, presumably) and his decision to become a monk (especially the celibacy part). It ends with the lines "The only thing I don't need/ is a comb" Again, his message is loud and clear. But that's not to say it isn't a witty or great poem. Tracing back to the first line, "I shaved my head" there's a definite preoccupation with hair. Hair of course, has been a very traditional symbol for freedom in the world of poetry and so voila, the poem begins to have teeth (comb- teeth, get it? oh nevermind). Anyway, my point is that a poem's directness or indirectness (slanted or straight-up) should not be the only measure of its quality.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Reader's Diary #140- Nick Sikkuark: Book of Things You Will Never See (FINISHED)

Sometimes something is so bad that it has a certain appeal. It's why we have the Razzies. It's why the producers of "Snakes On A Plane" seem to be milking that angle. It's why you should find (if possible) a copy of Nick Sikkuark's Book of Things You Will Never See.

The title seems compelling, it was in the children's section, and I want to expose my children to the Inuit culture. So I thought this book was a safe bet.

The book is deranged.

There is no story, the text seems to be just a rough description of the art. The voice switches from first person singular ("I have dogs...") to plural ("we will tell you our secrets") and alternates back and forth. There are spelling mistakes. And it makes NO SENSE! I really wish I had a scanner so I could my point across. I'll just have to try my best to describe one particular page; The picture shows a large green bird with ears and a couple of red spider-esque sores. The bird is eating a fish as a man watches from behind a bank of snow. The accompanying text says,
"If you don't watch what is going around you, I'll eat you too! If you don't
listen to your boss, that is, I'll eat you..".

There isn't mention of a boss anywhere else in the book. It's a little crazy-scary. Like something a schizophrenic might produce.

But perhaps the most eyebrow raising scene shows an Inuk who has chopped his way down the length of the sea ice and along the way has axed through a seal, a dog, a sled and his igloo.
"What am I going to do? I just cut the ice in half, including a seal, my dog, my
sled, and my igloo!"

Yes, it's a real treasure trove of insanity. A great Christmas present for your stoner friends.

In Darlene Wight's Community Profiles, The Central Arctic, Inuit Art and Crafts she claims that his drawings are "richly varied in both style and content" and that his text is "philosophical and at times, poetic." Okay?

His drawings were imaginative, I'll give him that. And I'll also concede that looking at some of new work online, he's come a long way.

At the end of Book of Things You Will Never See, Sikkuark writes, "If you don't like this book, just throw it away in the wastebasket." I won't be doing that. It's so bad, it's good.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Reader's Diary #139- Carl Sharpe: Memories In The Life Of A Twillingate Man (FINISHED)

Growing up in Newfoundland, I wasn't always sure how I fit into the whole Newfoundland identity. But then trying to match oneself to a stereotype is always difficult.

To me, Sharpe could be the iconic Newfoundlander. Hard working, family man, loves his wife and kids, goes to church and enjoys an occasional drink. And doesn't have a lot of education.

True, that last one has been the source of many "Newfie Jokes" and has been the sore spot of many of us who have left the province for work, regardless of whether or not we have a doctorate or dropped out of school in grade 3. But still, it's hard not to giggle when Sharpe writes such phrases as "...that was to take it to the oboe on the street..." "Oboe" of course, meaning "hobo". Or when he consistently misspells "well" as "will."

You see, Sharpe left school after grade 8 to fish with his father. The fact that he's written a book at all is quite an accomplishment. And I'm not laughing at him as much as with him, for I really enjoyed his memoirs. Not only did I get a glimpse of my home town in years past, but I feel like I really got a glimpse into the blue-collar psyche. That might make me sound somewhat of a snob, to think we're all that different (my parents after all are no strangers to manual labour themselves) but still Sharpe and people like him are the backbone of Newfoundland and I've often wondered what made them tick, what is it about them that draws in the tourists by the ferryload year after year? Memories has given me insight.

There is a part of Sharpe's character that doesn't help the book: he's too darn nice! It's part of his appeal I'm sure, to never say anything mean and always try to find the positive, but it leaves out a bit of the seedier side of Newfoundland outport life. Oh well, we can always turn to Hatching, Matching and Dispatching I guess.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Reader's Diary #138- Leonard Cohen: Book of Longing (up to "The Third Invention")

I was about to write "Leonard Cohen goes through religions like an adolescent male goes through Kleenex." Not trying to be shocking, I thought Cohen would appreciate the comparison.

But then I read a quote from him on wikipedia that states "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism." This, despite the fact that he was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 1996. So his religious view is confusing to his fans. That's part of his appeal isn't it?

Book of Longing deals with the same themes that Cohen's been writing and singing about since the 50s: Religion, Love, Dirty Sex, Self-deprecation, and as the title says, Longing. These 5 themes, alone or entwined, can be found in any Cohen work (and if you can suggest an exception, I'd like to hear it).

At his best Cohen is an intriguing wordsmith, making the reader almost get his logic in his oft-attempted "perversion is the key to salvation" argument. "Almost" because there's always a sense of longing and of not quite attaining happiness, love, or inner-peace (if his theories were correct, the longing would be absent wouldn't it?).

At his worse, Cohen is a tedious, self-centred whining bore, repeating the same schtick over and over again.

But I don't want to end on that note, because I am a fan. "Hallelujah" is one of my all time favourite songs, be it done by Buckley, Lang, Cale, Wainwright or the man himself (not so much Bono). And Book of Longing has some pretty great moments as well. "A Limited Degree" is perhaps my favourite so far. It begins with his (limited degree of) realization that it is God's world and it ends with him in his grade six hockey sweater. The contrast of the higher order philosophy with the rather Earthly image of him in a childhood sweater becomes a perfect symbol of the humbling that has taken place. Brilliant.

Reader's Diary #137- Paulo Coelho: The Alchemist (FINISHED)

Earlier this year a friend and I went to a bar in St. John's. It was one of those small joints where people go just to have a few drinks and converse. There were only a few of us there that night and we were doing just that. Except for one female patron.

This particular woman was sitting by herself back in a corner with a glass of wine and a book. We stayed for a couple of hours or so and the whole time we were there, she didn't look away from her novel. Needless to say, I was intrigued and maybe it was the Guinness or maybe it was the sour apple martini, but before we left I finally got up the nerve to interupt her reading and find out what book it was. You're probably thinking "big deal" but if you saw how entranced she was, you'd probably think it awfully risky to separate her from her reading, however momentarily.

The book, as you've already guessed, was Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. As I began this book I could quickly see what the attraction was. It began as a fun, fable-esque story. Coelho was quick to draw connections to the Bible and get the feel of a parable across. In doing so, he wasn't quick on giving away any of the book's secrets. From the onset, he makes the reader want to continue in their search for answers (which in turn mirrors Santiago's search for answers). What was his recurring dream? Who is the old king? And so forth.

Unfortunately, towards the end the tale becomes a little too new agey and preachy for my taste. As Coelho rambled incessantly about "personal legends" it became more Celestine Prophecy than Life of Pi.

Still, I can see what held the attention of the mysterious lady in the bar. But I wonder how she felt at the end. Was it worth the effort?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #136- Carl Sharpe: Memories The Life of A Twillingate Man (up to Chapter 9)

I read a book review in the Nunatsiaq News the other day (yes, we're in Iqaluit finally) that ripped a book to shreds. John Thompson compared the Robert Billard's From Within to a building calling it "structurally unsound" and at the end of the article said that the next time around, Billard should think of hiring an editor. You see, From Within was self-published and it showed. According to Thompson, it was full of punctuation problems, spelling mistakes, and general typos. The same could be said for Carl Sharpe's Memories- In The Life Of A Twillingate Man. However, unlike the Nunatsiaq reporter, I'm going to be a little more forgiving. Why so nice? It's not because of any recent self-reflection. It's primarily because my grandparents enjoyed it. I know I'm allowed to find fault with things that my grandparents like, but Carl Sharpe's book was obviously intended for such people, not for young gaffers like me. That's not to say I'm not enjoying it. One of the things I've enjoyed most as an adult (and one of the things I'll miss the most now that I've moved away again) is having a glass of Old Sam with my nan and pop and listen to them reflect on the old days and share all of those anecdotes with me. Without the rum their "good ol' days" syndrome makes them lecturers of the "anything modern = bad" variety. But with the rum, they make a convincing case. Carl Sharpe's book feels like I've just downed a shot. I love that he acknowledges that everything wasn't a Newfoundland version of a Norman Rockwell painting. He acknowledges the poverty of the thirties, the hardships of fishing, and so on, yet he doesn't dwell on them either. Instead, he dwells on the good times like Sunday School picnics that were community events, listening to Wilf Carter on the radio and so forth. It's humbling to see how people enjoyed themselves yet had so little. Yet most interesting and compelling about the book is that it is about my hometown (there's even a story about how my great grandfather lost an eye) yet it might as well be about someplace on the other side of the globe for all I can recognize. If they ever get the kinks of time travel worked out, there's a booming tourism industry waiting to happen. How life has changed in a mere 50 years or so is amazing. And it's more than a little unsettling that in another mere 50 years my own memoires could be equally as foreign to the next generations. For instance, my wife and I were talking the other day about how bizarre it is that our own kids will not know life without the internet. Sharpe's memoirs, though heavy in mistakes, have made me reflect as well. Unlike Robert Billard who seems to have wanted to write the next best-selling thriller, Sharpe only wanted to keep a certain way of life, a certain time period alive, and he succeeded. The added bonus is that he had the ability to connect with readers, however few they might be.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Writer's Diary #4- Staircase (first draft, first stanza only)

Okay, so I'm not in Iqaluit yet. These things take time!

And I've obviously found some internet access.


Echoes of the thumps
Like a basketball, suddenly
beyond my fingertips

Reader's Diary #135- Michael Crummey: Salvage (FINISHED)

What a fantastic collection of poetry! I had read Crummey's Hard Light before, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn't see what all the hype was about. Now I understand. Crummey is an amazing poet.

I hardly know where to begin. But I'll start by saying how well he infuses emotion and mood into his work. Of course it all comes down to word choice and Crummey shows his skill by somehow choosing just the right image, just the right adjectives and adverbs, and just the right comparison. Sometimes he even goes out of his way to find the perfect word and as I was reading through, time and time again, I found myself thinking, "yeah, that's right!" I could open the book to just about any poem for an example; "...the complaint of nails/ being pried from old lumber" (from "The Narrows"). Not only does "complaint" conjure up the whining sound, but also helps secure the mood of the poem. Most of Crummey's words multitask just like that one. Superb.

Another poem I feel that deserves mention is "Braveheart". In Sedgwick's How To Write Poetry he warns against anchoring poems in the present too much. With such a pop culture reference as this (yes, "Braveheart" is a reference to the Mel Gibson movie), Crummey may have written a poem that won't live for a hundred years. But then again, it might. It should. In just a few deftly crafted lines, we see a relationship end with the simple act of pressing "rewind" on a movie. And better than that, Crummey makes the comparison of the couple to the Scots and English not only humourous, but ultimately apt. Incredible.